5 May 2016
The best management consultancy firms add value to their clients by working in partnership to provide clarity in decision making and help increase the probability of successful change. One illustration of this added value is in the area of benefits management, where developments in integrating systems thinking combined principles with portfolio, programme and project management techniques has been paying dividends to both consultant and client.
Most organisations today face a range of challenges including budget cuts, how to prioritise investment, and how to successfully align strategic business objectives with effective and efficient operational delivery. However, if the business is not clear about why they are making changes, not sure about what could stop them from making changes, or that it’s been difficult for them to show value from the changes, then how do they know that the changes they are making are for the best?
Benefits Management is a recognised technique for identifying and realising the value of lasting changes but, as demonstrated by past failures to achieve desired outcomes, there are many hurdles to overcome before success can be achieved. Complexity, misinterpretation, over-optimism, poor evidence gathering, lack of accountability and difficulties in defining true benefits (to name but a few) are all factors to be addressed. Faced with these problems, many organisations reach out to the consultancy community to seek support and guidance on how to tap into the latest developments in the field of Benefits Management.
Benefits Management cannot be considered in isolation. It is one facet of an overall approach to change, and a key perspective for considering the change environment throughout its life cycle. Because of the increasing complexity, constraints and levels of inter-dependency around many change initiatives, an integrated approach to benefits realisation is needed that makes portfolio, programme and project management techniques effective in complex situations – an approach based on the principles of systems thinking.
Systems thinking is a term used to denote a framework for seeing inter-relationships and patterns, for looking at problems in their entirety taking into account the elements and variables in their environment and how they interact with each other. It is as applicable to socio-economic and business environments as it is to discrete products or groups of products.
Increasing levels of interaction across multiple stakeholders exacerbate the barriers to achieving lasting benefits, but a systems-based approach brings together the multiple perspectives of change (assumptions, risks, investments, controls, governance, stakeholders etc.) and places the focus on achieving the desired benefits. By taking an integrated systems approach, organisations can make robust investment decisions based on an increased certainty that benefits are achievable and realistic.
We have been developing and applying the principles of systems thinking in portfolios, programmes and projects since the company’s inception in 2003. Over that time our clients have profited from the employment of these techniques to help clarify investment decisions, to support the delivery of products and outcomes, to develop their P3 management organisations, and to achieve lasting beneficial business change. Systems thinking is not just about the thing that you are producing or the state you wish to reach – it’s also about the way that you get there and the people that make it happen (or not).
A systems approach provides a flexible framework and discipline that supports all the key elements of the P3M whilst creating a single-point-of-truth platform for robust decision making through the life cycle. Using business architecture and analysis techniques, systems methodologies and P3M, an appropriate scalable representation of the change environment can be generated. This can then be interrogated as required to provide the various different perspectives that are needed including the ‘benefits perspective’. This representation is maintained through the life cycle, not only providing a baseline at initialisation, but a firm platform for continued justification of business cases through to final evaluation of organisational performance.
The ‘benefits perspective’ refers to the views of the change environment that underpin the work of benefits management. Elements such as risks, assumptions, stakeholder parameters, objectives, milestones (and so on), all have relevance to the definition, management and realisation of benefits.
Also critical to the work of benefits management is establishing empathy with the client. Only by gaining trust with stakeholders and beneficiaries can a consultancy firm help uncover the links and relationships – both explicit and implicit – that will make or break benefits management. Stakeholder engagement and analysis is then integral to benefits management, and the systems approach provides a single-point-of-truth foundation for both.
The application of systems thinking to benefits management, and indeed to the wider change activity, is an example of how consultancy organisations can work with clients to deliver mutual advantage. Working with a consultancy should be a form of collaborative partnership where both parties are aware of what they are gaining, helping each other to achieve it. In the case of the systems-based benefits management approach, clients not only obtain the greater confidence and clarity for their activities, but also potentially gain insight and innovation from using consultancy practitioners who may have used the approach in other sectors. Knowledge transfer between the consultant and client can be a source of competitive advantage to the client.
For example, BMT has worked with the Ministry of Defence to put in place a benefits framework to underpin its work in a maritime system programme, at the same time as supporting EDF in making benefits-based investment decisions across part of its portfolio. In both cases, the clients received the advantage of latest experiences in other sectors which was then transferred to their own staff and operations.
Another advantage of using consultancies is being able to interact with wider communities of practice and provide alternative viewpoints on internal thinking. Consultancies invest in networking not only to advance their own internal capabilities but also those of their clients. Many of our consultants are active members of professional bodies and some sit on several APM Specific Interest Group (SIG) committees according to their own specialisms, including that of the Benefits Management SIG. In addition, we also support the work of the Joint Working Group on Systems Engineering / PM Integration – an initiative between the APM and the UK Chapter of the International Council for Systems Engineering. By working as a conduit for cross-fertilisation like this, consultancies can provide a means of disseminating knowledge across different communities and sectors – and help clients connect further with these networks.
The fact is, consultancy firms have to deliver demonstrable added value to their client organisations. In the case of a systems approach to benefits management, we have worked with clients to generate multi-million pound savings in portfolio optimisation and through-life savings, improved benefits realisation re-profiling to obtain ‘quick wins’, visible benefits management to suit stakeholder perceptions, integrated P3M environments covering governance and controls, and delivering training to clients in benefits management and related disciplines. It is possible to get a win-win situation, where extra benefits have been gained by both parties through working together – after all, a central tenet of systems thinking is that ‘the whole is more than the sum of the parts’.
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